Blog #3 – Technology for Community

At Savor South Madison I found a small, passionate community base but struggling economic participation. Sheri and Arvin, the SMPC organizers, were a fabulous unifying force for all of the individuals who came to the event, greeting each visitor who came by and directing the day’s events. Their outgoing nature was matched by other booth organizers, like the young woman at the Urban League booth or the woman from the South Madison library reading books to the visiting children. Both women were quick to show their passion for their respective organizations and demonstrate their dedication either through years of service or level of involvement.

The aspect of the event that was lacking, especially for our class, was the absence of local food vendors. Pizza Hut, Famous Dave’s and even JD’s were a sad commentary for South Madison. It lead to much speculation amongst the class about whether the vendors didn’t want to go through the effort, didn’t feel safe, weren’t invited, etc. Had more local vendors been there it would have been easier for us to promote the event day-of on social media and may have gotten people driving by to stop and spend some time at the event, even if just to grab a bite to eat.

I think one way that technology could help the residents of South Madison, especially with regards to food vendors, is to get the word out about these vendors by creating a bridge through our personal reviews via social media. We can use our social connections to lend credibility to these restaurants and, beyond that, use the link to campus (our course) to lend a sense of legitimacy to our advertisements. Now, an association with a course may in fact lead our social networks to believe that we are only endorsing these restaurants because we must. However I think that if we utilize video, where we show through our actions that we’ve gone to these restaurants, met the owners, and ate great food, that concern will dissipate. In addition, if we can partner with people like Sheri and Arvin, who share our passion and lend credibility to our mission, we will build a bridge for our audiences in South Madison and campus. As a part of this bridging, it would be great if we could encourage our followers to make their own videos, thus encouraging an online community that transcends the physical boundaries of the various Madison neighborhoods.

If we can in fact encourage more enthusiasm for these restaurants both on campus and in South Madison, this increased interest may encourage the restaurant owners to come local events like Celebrate South Madison, knowing their customers will stop by. The in-person participation will hopefully help to build stronger bonds between South Madison and campus, turning around the poor reputation of the area and give students a better understanding of the broader Madison community.

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Blog Post 3: Technology for Community

Leading up to our first day of field work, I was a little skeptical about heading into South Madison for the Celebrate South Madison festival. Everything I’d heard about that area of town was that it was ghetto, full of crime, and just not somewhere you really want to be. However, my experience on that day was very positive. In my conversations with resident, I got a good insight into what life in South Madison is really like and the challenges that face us as we create our campaign this semester. Furthermore, it made me realize that introducing new technologies can help expand the social network of community members. By creating a community on the internet, we can break down geographical barriers and get different neighborhoods to interact with each other.

Almost everyone I talked to was eager to share their story and open up about the challenges they face as a family and as a community. Throughout these conversations, I realized that not many residents even know about the wonderful restaurant and grocery store options that are available in South Madison, or don’t think that they can afford them. I think that this is a major challenge that we face. Since the community has a low average income, they assume that going out to dinner is not an option because they won’t be able to afford it, but in reality, the restaurants in South Madison are relatively low cost. By making this a known fact, I think we can overcome that hurdle. Furthermore, for the members of the South Madison community, this should be a focus of our campaign. Additionally, not many of the people I talked to were a part of or active on different social media sites, which is a major challenge that we are facing. As we discussed in class, hosting training sessions that go over the basics of different social media platforms can be extremely beneficial; after all, if people don’t use social media, our message might not reach them. Social media can connect so many people and has a community building effect. If we are able to get the residents of South Madison onto social media websites, we could potential create a large network of people from the area and connect them to area restaurants and grocery stores I see this challenge as a huge opportunity that can help build and connect the community members.

Finally, a conversation that stood out in my mind was with a father of 2 young boys. He mentioned that he would love for us to do something that engages the kids in the community, to keep them occupied and busy during the day in summer/weekends or after school. He thinks that it is vital to show the kids that there are beneficial activities that they can be involved in that better the community, as well as keep them away from the temptation of drugs and alcohol in high school and later in life. This dad was concerned because he said that a lot of parents work during the day and sometimes into the night and that some parents like him aren’t able to afford organizations and sports programs for their kids, but still want them to have those positive experiences and build friendships with other children in the community. From my experience at Celebrate South Madison, I could tell that parents desperately want more kid-friendly organizations and programs and this is a great opportunity for us. From watching the kids participate in the Boys & Girls club musical and dance performance, I could tell that they really enjoyed coming together with friends and community members. But more importantly, watching the parents watch their children performing was really touching; each and every parent had a look of pride, joy, and true excitement on their face as their children were on stage. Because of this, I think that the biggest opportunity we have as a class is focusing on programs and organizations for the kids in the community.

Overall, we have two main challenges and some great opportunities. If we are able to show the residents that the prices of the fabulous restaurants in their area are affordable and that social media websites aren’t all that scary, I think that will increase the success of our campaign. Moreover, I think that we should focus on the fact that the community is family-oriented in that it wants to create opportunities for the younger members of the area.


Community engagement

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Community, relationships, connections, and development are often taken for granted. Some groups form naturally, while others struggle engage. Why does this matter? Without citizen engagement a program, organization, or city cannot flourish; schisms form, accountability decreases, and crime rates often increase. Robert Putnam notes that social capital has been decreasing for over a quarter century, there are many proposed reasons as to why social capital is declining—everything from lack of time, changes in the structure of society, economics, and even the electronic revolution. In this highly-tech world we live in, how can we encourage community members to engage? Putnam identifies the three important features of social capital for improving social life: networks, norms, and trust.

Let’s explore a local community through Putnam’s lens based on his article “Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America” to see a few examples of why social capital may be decreasing. South Madison is located on the south side of Madison surrounding the greater Park Street neighborhoods. It is a highly diverse region with many different nationalities represented. This brings up Putnam’s discussion about the role race has on decreased social capital. Trust tends to be the biggest issue when discussing race—with only 17% of blacks reporting that, “most people can be trusted” compared to 45% of whites. These statistics had me somewhat convinced that race was a large factor in the decline of social capital, but Putnam, declares that while there is the issue of trust, race does not explain the entire issue. Then, I considered that mobility may be a factor in decreased social capital in South Madison, but Putnam affirms that individuals actually move less nowadays than they did years ago and this is not the sole factor contributing to the decline in social capital in South Madison. I considered the changes in marriage and family as a potential contributor to the decline of social capital in South Madison, but once again, Putnam determines that there is only minimal evidence to support the notion that changes in family structure could contribute to decreased social capital. While men and women who are married report higher levels of trust and social engagement than those divorced, separated, or never married, it does not explain the normative beliefs. Thus, that brings us to two main contributions to decreased social capital: generation and television. Older generations are more likely to vote, read the news, and join community and church groups. Since WWII there has been a slow decline on social engagement. However, with increased diversity in South Madison, the generation effect may be more prevalent than other areas of Madison where families may not be first or second-generation immigrants. Television is Putnam’s strongest suggestion describing the reason why social capital has decreased. He notes that time spent watching television—and I would change that to “screen” to include newer technologies like smart phones, computers, etc—is replacing time spent joining clubs, civic groups, voting, and engaging in general. When Putnam’s article was published in 1995 it was estimated that Americans watch four hours of television per day, I believe if you add newer technologies to the list, the number of hours per day would be much higher.

While there are many suggested hypotheses to answer the decreased social capital issue, it is likely a combination of many factors with generation, education, and television having the strongest supporting evidence.

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Thankfully, Putnam’s suggestion that television is the largest contributor to the decline in social engagement is actually something that we can potentially influence or utilize. Whether that includes creating campaigns that to reach individual’s through their desired platform (television, internet, print, etc) or engaging participants “offline” and helping to establish a welcoming community beyond the screen. Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Yee, and Nickell’s article demonstrates that community can be formed through online video gaming in their article “From Tree House to Barracks: The Social Life of Guilds in World of Warcraft”. This may be a useful platform to engage especially the younger generation in South Madison, if not through actual video games, perhaps through a game-type of event that incorporates the features of gaming that individuals connect with. Using social media as a format to engage local community members may be very beneficial for building social capital in South Madison. Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe’s article as well as Hampton and Wellman’s article note the importance of social media for building connections, relationships, and even neighborhoods. When a community can have an active presence on social media they can work together to solve issues from reducing community crime, to determining the best time to host the next neighborhood festival. One challenge may be finding the correct platform for the individual community members; some may be more active of facebook, others may choose twitter, and still others may not be on any social networking site. How do we get everyone interested and involved in the conversation? What’s the best way to reach the most amount of people in South Madison?


Making South Madison into a “Smart Mob”

From what I have seen and experienced in South Madison there are two “social dilemmas” that I believe need to be addressed. The first is the segregation of the communities. Although there is a ton of diversity in the region, the different ethnicities and cultures do not interact with one another. The second is that not everyone has access to technology or the internet, which would greatly inhibits collectivity within the community.

I believe that the people of South Madison do not participate in collective action because their neighborhoods have become segregated to the point that they do not have the opportunity to speak to one another on a daily basis. This was evident at the Celebrate South Madison Festival when I observed families of different ethnicities hesitate to interact with one another and get into an argument over littering. The socio-econononic differences of the residents is also a reason for the lack of communication in the community because in the era of online communication some of the residents cannot join in on the online conversation.

In Smart Mobs: The Power of Many, Reignold talks about how mobile technology and cell phone use has changed the way we communicate with one another. The Fillipinos were able to overthrow their President with a mass text message. The text message read, “GO 2EDSA, WEAR BLCK.” This started a revolution in the Philippines and lead to nonviolent collective action that successfully changed the government. In this period of mobility it is crucial to stay connected and with the use of a cell phone you can communicate with almost anyone. Reignold calls these instances of mobile communication that have lead to nonviolent change, “smart mobs.” These “smart mobs” have lead to more peer-to-peer journalism than ever before and have increased community unity in several ways.

Online social media is important in fostering community but because computer technology is not as prevalent in South Madison, as in other areas of the United States, I believe focusing on mobile technology is what will make a difference. Today, almost everyone has access to a cell phone and with the use of text messages there can be a lot more community discussion. These mobile networks of individuals can help to bridge the gap between the different ethnic neighborhoods of South Madison in a plausible way. For example, there can be town meetings held virtually over mobile devices where everyone can say their piece and their opinions can be heard. Change is only possible when people come together and with the use of mobile technology everyone can take part in the conversation.


Taking Your Community Online

Based on the observations and experiences I have had in South Madison, a prominent example of a “social dilemma” was the Celebrate South Madison festival. From my understanding, the festival has been quite a large event in past years. However, this year the number of restaurant participants and community attendance significantly decreased. One couldn’t help but wonder, why did this happen?

In her book Here Comes Everybody, Shirky cites an observation of Robert Putnam that is quite startling: participation in group activities, the vehicle for creating and sustaining social capital, is on the decline in the United States. What causes this decline varies by region, but it hinders our whole nation and hinders the social capital of places like South Madison.

Perhaps one of the main reasons participation in group activities has declined is because communication became too difficult. The cost of picking up the phone, walking downtown or driving to a gathering outweighed the social capital benefits. Fortunately, new technology is working to lessen the social dilemmas present in South Madison and other communities around the country.

The rise of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, gave people a way to engage with their communities without any physical contact. The information available online is unlimited, and people have the ability to filter what they participate in. This forms “groups” of people with similar interests coming together for a similar cause. Taking it one step further, you can find people with similar interests coming together for a similar cause in your immediate surrounding area. There is no need to call anyone or drive anywhere; you can join the conversation right from your couch.

Although people in South Madison may have access to new technology, I believe the society within and surrounding South Madison has hindered the new technology from being truly effective in lessening the social dilemma problems. South Madison is very diverse, which is and advantage and a disadvantage. It is a disadvantage in that the different ethnic groups rarely come together as one community. Organizations within the community do very little to encourage the groups to come together. But perhaps the new technology will be an outlet for people from all different backgrounds to come together without any judgments or pressures. They can break into a new group based on common interests instead of ethnicity. Savor South Madison can aid this grouping by providing the common ground of delish food that is present right in the South Madison community.


Connections through New Communication

The past few weeks have been a very eye-opening experience for me. Exploring South Madison has led me to new places I never knew existed. I have gained a new perspective on South Madison and met people who are proud to be a part of that community. But when a person from South Madison refers to their “community,” I can’t help but wonder how they define it.

It is evident that South Madison has a lot to offer in the form of delicious food, diverse residents and dedicated organizations. The problem is that these three entities are not all connected. They have not bonded like parts of a true community should. Communication is inconsistent and messages are not widely dispersed. In order to bring South Madison together, the community needs an outlet to reach everyone.

New communication technologies are free, useful tools that have proven effective in bringing people together for a common cause. The ease with which a message can be relayed from one person to the next is astounding. The relationships formed online may not have any physical components, but they can foster the same amount of passion and purpose as any face-to-face friendship or connection. These new technologies, such as Facebook and Twitter, can help a community by providing an outlet for bonding that is easily accessible and does not require a physical presence. It is hard to get everyone in one place at one time. In a chat room or through a text message, you can do just that with a click of the “send” button.

However, in order for new communication technologies to be effective, people must understand how they work and how to use them. I feel that this is one of the challenges we face in South Madison. I believe that access to the Internet and new communication technologies is also a problem. Savor South Madison’s promotion team discussed the idea of technology courses, which would offer the residents of South Madison an opportunity to learn about social media tools. The lack of knowledge creates an opportunity for teaching.

Another challenge in South Madison is the lack of restaurants’ presence on the Internet. If more of the restaurants actively utilized social media accounts and blogs, their reach would expand not only throughout South Madison but also to the rest of Madison as a whole. An opportunity from this situation is that Savor South Madison can offer our site as an outlet for restaurants to establish an online presence and gain an understanding of how to manage that presence themselves.

A final challenge for South Madison is the lack of coordination between the prominent organizations within the community. An effort must be made to ensure that, when an organization has a message to send out, that it reaches everyone, not just a select group of people. The South Madison community goes beyond ethnic divides; organizations like the South Metropolitan Planning Council need to utilize new communication technologies in order to reach a wider variety of people. If only part of the community gets your message, then only part of the community will participate.

South Madison can improve the bonding between its residents and the bridging to the rest of the Madison community. New communication technologies provide a solution to the challenges that the community faces. If the residents, restaurants and organizations use these new communication technologies to expand the opportunities to reach the community as a whole, bonding and bridging within South Madison will increase and the sense of community will grow. 


Turning struggles into opportunities

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Since the semester started, I’ve had the opportunity to explore South Madison twice: once during the Celebrate South Madison festival and last week during our South Madison bus tour. Both were very fun and educational, but in very different ways. Juxtaposing the two events together, it’s hard not to notice that while the first event simply celebrated the ethnic diversity and culture South Madison offers, the bus tour highlighted some of the negative aspects of the area, in addition to the positives.

 

I didn’t think I could fairly assess my true feelings about South Madison until I was immersed in the history of the area. While the Celebrate South Madison festival was loads of fun, you truly cannot learn about a place until you know about its past. South Madison’s past plays an important role in how the area has been stigmatized in relation to the campus. By comparing and contrasting what the area was once like, one can truly appreciate the strong efforts made by community leaders to rebuild South Madison educationally, culturally and demographically.

 

Food brings people together.

 

Savor South Madison’s mission revolves around food. Food is a necessity for everybody, regardless of race, religion or income. South Madison has a vibrant culinary community. Take Mercado Marimar, for instance. This was one of the stops on our bus tour. As soon as you walk in, you see shelves upon shelves of authentic food, shipped directly from Mexico. As you walk towards the corner of the store, you can see the tortilla machine, pumping out those warm, delicious circles like nobody’s business. The place was packed with Hispanic locals, clearly enjoying the food they had ordered from the store’s restaurant. Everyone seemed happy. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but I could take an educated guess. People seem to warm up to others who share similar interests. Mercado Marimar seems to be a “hang out” spot. It seems to make perfect sense that a local grocery store/restaurant would breed such close knit groups of people.

 

Food makes people happy.

 

Think about Melly Mell’s restaurant also. Soul food is all about family and being with the people you love. Their slogan, “Where’s your mama at?” says it all. People looking for a home-cooked meal can come to Melly Mell’s and eat comfort food like their own mothers may have made when they were young. In my experiences, just one bite of something so delicious can trigger many different senses, not just your sense of taste. The sight of the food, the smell, the feeling and even the sound to a certain extent, all add to the food eating experience. Take fried chicken, my personal favorite. While the taste is simply delicious, the smell is intoxicating, the crispy breading is super appealing, the sound of your teeth breaking the crispy barrier is quite musical, and the sight of a golden brown, juicy piece of fried chicken is incomparable. Why else do you think Melly Mell’s dabbles in the catering business? Who wouldn’t want that type of food at a corporate event, for example? Soul cooking isn’t just food; it’s an experience.

 

Food is educational.

 

Think about the Badger Rock garden. South Madison is not farm country, by any means. Despite the urbanization that surrounds it, a fully-functional garden in the middle of South Madison is truly a sight to see. I was absolutely floored by the fact that they were growing produce I had never even heard of before, (Ground Cherry, I’m talking to you). Even more impressive was that during harvest season, the fresh produce could be collected by hand and washed in the building a few steps away and turned into nutritious, delicious meals for the students of the school. That truly takes the farm-to-table concept to a whole new level. The food that these students eat may just have the smallest carbon footprint of anything eaten at their individual homes. You have to start with the children, in my mind. By teaching these students about responsible gardening techniques and even getting hands-on experience goes a long way in making a lifelong impact is somebody’s life.

 

There are challenges, but food can and will make a difference.

 

Communicating within a community can be a very overwhelming task, especially when the community is a) stigmatized from its surrounding areas and b) having a difficult time branching out from preset social groups. South Madison has already taken some efforts like the Southern Exposure newspaper, for instance. I truly believe that you cannot make a difference in one day, but any small step is a positive step. The Southern Exposure newspaper is available to those community members who truly care about South Madison and want to see the community come together. It isn’t limited to certain social or ethnic groups. Obviously, the challenge here is finding enough readers, but I also feel that by aiming for a certain target market, in this case passionate individuals who care about their neighborhood, word of mouth may spread quicker than we may think.

 

Communication through use of social media is also a very effective way to reach the masses inexpensively. However, one of the barriers is that as a group, we’re not quite sure what the levels of internet use are in South Madison. I also feel it’s necessary to consider that of those who actually use the internet on a regular basis, how many of those individuals are literate enough in internet use that targeting them through social media would be worth the extra effort? Social media is a budding technology that I feel has a ton of promise. You can access social media via the computer or even a smartphone. Eventually, these technologies will be universally available to everybody, high or low income. Savor South Madison’s Facebook and Twitter pages have a long way to go before being top-of-mind, but by spreading the word as best as we can, the followers will come. And then more followers will come. And before you know it, you’ve managed to reach a large audience with one thing in common: they all love food.